Religious evolution

Religious evolution

Catalin Negru | Published: April 03, 2017 | 10:34

A free and open-source software (known as FOSS in technical terms) is a computer program that anyone is freely licensed to use, copy, study, and change it in any way; the source code is openly shared so that people are encouraged to voluntarily improve its design. In May 2003 WordPress 0.7 was released as a free and open-source software content management system for people who want to build personal blogs on the Internet. In January 2004 WordPress was updated to 1.0 and, compared to the previous version, it was improved with the additional features of friendly permalinks, multiple categories, simple installation and upgrade, comment moderation, XFN support and Atom support. In May 2004 version 1.2 was released, in February 2005 version 1.5, and ever since WordPress has been periodically upgraded and improved with new features. WordPress version 4.7 was released in December 2016, with features, size and structure very different from the first version of the project.

At this point you might ask yourself “What am I reading here? Is this a mistake?”

The paragraph above is not a mistake and you are reading the right thing. But why am I talking about software in an article with religious title? Because religions and software are very similar, and the image of software helps me better explain religious mechanisms.

Software are computer programs, while religions are social programs. Their life cycle is almost identical: they are released, they evolve, they are public, they have (written) instructions to be executed, their errors result in damages in the physical world, they become obsolete and they are discarded. In order to produce palpable effects, software require hardware to store them, load them into memory and execute them; religions require people (brains) to memorize them, embrace them, and execute their instructions. Both software and religion are void/powerless without the physical support. And both are built with a purpose: to satisfy certain needs.

Religions have versions, exactly like software.

Religions have versions, exactly like software. Imagine Moses, Jesus Christ or Muhammad (I’ll focus on Abrahamic religions because these are the most widespread) as programmers. In every single period of time there have been people who presented programs to the public, frequently invoking divine revelation. But these three were smarter; they had better ideas and better coding skills than other programmers of their time. Consequently, their programs better satisfied the expectations and the needs of the crowds and they were massively adopted by individuals. Moses’s program was later called “Judaism,” Jesus Christ’s program came to be known as “Christianity,” while Muhammad’s program was named “Islam.” These people, when they publicly released or presented their program to their neighbors, their version was 1.0; exactly like in the case of WordPress above. The Judaism advanced by Moses was Judaism 1.0, the Christianity of Jesus Christ was Christianity 1.0, and the Islam of Muhammad was Islam 1.0. Common people adopted the programs of Moses, Jesus Christ and Muhammad and started to execute them: they started to pray, to judge justice and injustice, to speak or not to speak certain words, or to do or not do certain things. Depending on the adopted program, the adepts were named Jews, Christians or Muslims; exactly like nowadays there are fans of Counter-Strike, FIFA or Starcraft.

But nothing is perfect; not even what was apparently offered by divinity (which is assumed to be perfect). Those who adopted one religion or another quickly realized that the program did not cover all issues; they even seemed to be incomplete or faulty. The solution: interpretation. For the numerous undefined situations, the adepts interpreted the divine instructions according to their own knowledge and intelligence: “I think that here we should do like this because the holy texts say this, the prophet did that in a slightly similar situation and my inner logic says this.”

Most people have chosen to keep their interpretations only for themselves, at private level. Others, however, made their interpretations public, for others to adopt them as well. In time, some public interpretations were discarded, contrary interpretations caused schisms and deaths, while other interpretations became so widespread that they came to be seen as an integral part of the religions they were applied to. This is how Saint Augustine in Christianity, Moses Maimonides in Judaism or Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani in Islam turned into religious authorities. The mechanism of interpretation brought new features, new customs and new rules to the religions they were applied to (“patches” and “add-ons” in engineering terms), which automatically changed (altered) the version of that religion.

Religions do not change only through the work of a small group of people; they change also because of the changing collective behavior and scientific development. Your religion is changing right at this moment, while you are reading this article. And even you, regardless of your beliefs, more or less influence the evolution of one religion or another though the simple fact that you selectively assimilate information, selectively share it, adopt certain attitudes and do certain actions.

The evolution of religions directly depends of evolution of the world.

Religions are open source social programs, but their evolution directly depends of evolution of the world. Normally, the transition from one version to another is unperceivable with the naked eye; it takes place on tens or even hundreds of years. You can’t notice a difference between the Christianity of 2016 and the Christianity of 2017, but you can see a difference between the Christianity of the 21st century and the Christianity of the Middle Ages. Only dramatic and exceptional times and events – such as revolutions, catastrophes, ecumenical councils, scientific discoveries, clash of civilizations – make religions evolve faster. Nevertheless, religions today do evolve faster than in the past because information travels faster and the world as a whole evolves faster. So, religions have to adapt and keep the pace. If they don’t, they get rejected by society, radicalize and manifest violently.

Religions, like software, are customizable. Every religion (let’s say Christianity v5.6) is divided in groups who practice a sub-version (v5.3.8) to the original version, every group is divided into smaller groups that practice a sub-sub-version (v5.3.8.7) and every group is formed of individuals who have their own version (v5. If you ask random members of a religion about the basic principles of their religion, the answers are very similar. But, if you ask them about peripheral details, the answers are very different. Everyone has a unique image about his religion, customized by his own knowledge, and every single believer believes that he has the best religion and the best version of that religion. If he believed otherwise, he would change it.

Knowledge is also the factor that dictates which texts are interpreted symbolically and which are interpreted literally. As the world scientifically progresses, the scriptures have been interpreted increasingly symbolically and less literally. If a modern Christian presented his point of view about Christianity in the Middle Ages, he risked being burned at the stake. So, what makes this current version of Christianity better than the prevalent version of Christianity a millennium ago? On what grounds can people say now that their interpretation is better – and say that some texts are symbolical while other literal – than the interpretations of the past? Religion itself obviously cannot be the answer, since both parties use it as the source. This leaves room only for knowledge.

No religion is perfect; all have good parts and bad parts. When you speak about a religion as a whole, you have to accept it both with its good and bad parts. You can’t select only the good products of a religion (“Islam is a religion of peace”) and ignore the bad ones on the reason that they have a foreign cause (“ISIS is not Islam”). As long as there are people who interpret differently the same texts and practice different versions of the same religion, it is absurd to say that some are inside the religion and others are outside it only because you don’t agree with their interpretation.

Evolution or stagnation?

A major problem of religions – and this is a key difference compared to software – is that they are allergic to their own evolution. After too many versions, a religion comes to be much too different – even contrary – to its original purpose and design. This raises the following question: should religions remain the same regardless of circumstances; or should they change/evolve according to time?

This theological problem is harder than it looks at first sight; it has been debated inside every single religion ever since they were released. If a religion does not change (religious conservatism), then it rots, it comes into conflicts with the scientific progress and it is eventually discarded by individuals. But, if a religion changes (religious progressivism), it means it is not perfect (how can a perfect divinity provide a faulty ideology?) and the subsequent changes are made by fallible human beings through interpretations.

Religious conservatism is practiced mainly by people with a low level of knowledge; these believers invest a lot of time and energy in their religion, they prefer a literal and militant interpretation of the scriptures, a religious stagnation to the version they inherited, and they reject subsequent versions as being corrupt. For example, the declared aim of the Islamic State is exactly that: to impose Islam v1.0 worldwide and to eradicate all the other religions and versions of Islam. On the contrary, religious progressivism is practiced by people with a high degree of knowledge; these believers invest a small amount of time and energy in their religion, they prefer a symbolical and peaceful interpretation of the scriptures, a religious evolution to higher versions, and they accept religious diversity.

The current version of a religion is given by the combination of all its current sub-versions. In a religion that includes millions or billions of people, there are an outstanding number of sub-versions. But here is the tricky part: the version of a religion is not determined only on criteria of ratio between violent conservatives and peaceful progressivists, but also on criteria of activity. And because conservatives are much more active in practicing and promoting their religion than the progressivists, saying that a religion is violent requires a percentage of conservatives far less than 50%.

Violent religions are like computer viruses

Finally, if religions follow the pace of scientific development, their change is progressive – from inferior versions to superior versions. As long as their existence is not threatened, their violent instructions are dormant and only the peaceful instructions are active. But, when an ideology senses – through its conservative members – that its survival is threatened, it protects itself by resisting change or regressing to inferior versions and consequently activating its violent parts. Such a religion is no longer a religion, but a cult, exactly as certain programs are not categorized as software, but as computer viruses. Viruses damage the other software and the hardware where they are executed, exactly as dangerous ideologies damage the people and the places where they are practiced.

Now, after everything was said, let’s close with an exercise of imagination. Imagine for a moment a world in which God revealed himself through lines of code that, put together, made operating systems. And every single person thinks that his computer operating system and his customizations at the operating system are the best ever. In Eastern Europe people prevalently use Windows XP, while the English and the Irish hate each other because they use a different service pack at Windows 98. The Italians, the French and Spanish are great fans of Windows 95. In the Middle East most people use Ubuntu and they hate and kill users of other operating systems, especially the few who use Linux in the territory of Palestine. Moreover, the users of Ubuntu can’t even decide which version is better, and for this reason they hate and even kill each other. Most Ubuntu users think that the man who received Ubuntu from God was the best software engineer ever, and only if you follow his model of life you can become like him. Some users of Ubuntu v1.0 say that all the subsequent versions of Ubuntu are corrupted by humans and have many bugs, and everyone should abandon their current operating systems and start using their version. In order to achieve this goal, Ubuntu v1.0 adepts decapitate users of Ubuntu that prefer more modern version or blow themselves up in the middle of adepts of Windows 95 and 98…

Do you realize how absurd this sounds? But does it sound better that God’s revelations took the form of books?

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